The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed by Siobhan Carroll
16 August 2006
"How's the book?" asked Jezel.
"The Fall of the Master Maker, in three volumes. They say it's one of the great classics ... Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure. Utter shit." She slapped the book off the table and it tumbled onto the carpet, pages flapping. (p. 146)
The Blade Itself is an epic fantasy that wears its cynical, postmodern heart on its sleeve. Wise Magi, stern knights and full-bosomed ladies can be found in its pages, but they're hardly the stars of the show. Instead, the novel follows the misadventures of people who seem to have wandered out of a film noir version of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. None of the main characters are heroic in a traditional sense: the one who comes closest, handsome swordsman Captain Jezel dan Luthar, is a shallow, self-absorbed snob whose hobbies include cheating his friends at cards and avoiding hard work. But while the novel takes its jabs at epic fantasy, it avoids falling into either overdone parody or bitter satire, instead opting to reconstruct many of the heroic tropes it initially questions.
I do not mention Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire lightly. Fans of Martin's sweeping epic scope and tragic storylines will find much to admire in Joe Abercrombie's complex, gritty fantasy world, where shadowy political conspiracies vie with ancient evils as threats to the nation. But whereas Martin's novels feature huge casts of flawed-but-grand characters, The Blade Itself focuses on a relatively small cast of nobodies at the bottom of the food chain, people with little knowledge of (and in some cases, no interest in) the mysterious events overtaking their world.
In addition to the feckless Captain Jezel, we have Logen Ninefingers, a notorious killer turned thinking-man's barbarian. "To fight my enemies I need friends beside me, and I'm clean out of friends," he observes when asked why he doesn't wreak bloody revenge on those who have wronged him. "You have to be realistic. It's been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive" (p. 159). Weary of his Conan-esque lifestyle, Logen has reached a point where he's willing make choices based on morals rather than survival instincts. So when the mysterious First of the Magi recruits him to help foil the expansionist plans of his fellow Northern barbarians, Logen goes along with the plan in part because it gives his formless life some kind of purpose.
At the other end of the moral spectrum we have Inquisitor Glotka, a crippled ex-hero turned torturer for the House of Questions. Filled with loathing both for himself and for the rest of humanity, Inquisitor Glotka does not shrink from torturing former friends and framing innocent people at the request of his superiors. Glotka has no illusions about himself: he's a villain whose life has no value outside of its utility for those above him. But when his brutal investigations turn up evidence of a real conspiracy, Glotka is willing to ignore the warnings of his superiors and pursue the case beyond the point of safety.
Abercrombie is effective at juggling multiple plotlines and bringing his characters to a point where their stories start to overlap. By the time Glotka starts investigating the so-called First of the Magi and Captain Jezel is recruited for a quest to save the Union, it is clear that Abercrombie has thought through the conflicts overtaking this world and seeded clues about their nature throughout the narrative. That being said, it's not until the end of the novel that the shape of a traditional fantasy story arc starts to become clear, so readers who prefer to know the nature of world-destroying evil from the start may find their patience worn thin.
While Abercrombie does not skimp on plot or action, he is clearly more interested in what's going on inside characters' heads than the results of a bandit attack around the corner. He handles his characters well, giving the "good" characters enough flaws to make them realistic, and the "bad" characters enough humanity that we can sympathize with them despite the choices they make. The character of Inquisitor Glotka is especially well-drawn: while he is clearly the most "evil" character in the cast, the crippled Glotka's daily agony is described so vividly that that he often comes across as more sympathetic than shallow-but-inoffensive characters like Jezel.
Fans of character-driven epics who are willing to take their heroes with a grain of moral ambiguity should add this novel to their "must read" list, while those who have read it will no doubt look forward to the next volume in this promising new fantasy series. The Blade Itself is a smartly-written, sophisticated debut with compelling characters, a complex plot, and style to burn.